Monday, February 23, 2015

Monday Muse: Kelly Cherry's 'Twelve Women'

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Kelly Cherry is one of our most talented, inventive, and prolific writers — in multiple genres. In addition to being an award-winning poet (she served two years as Poet Laureate of Virginia), Cherry writes essays, memoir, novels, and short stories; she also has published translations. She has received numerous honors for her fiction writing. I last reviewed Cherry after reading her  book A Kind of Dream: Stories (see link below). More recently, I had the opportunity to read in advance* her tenth book of fiction, Twelve Women in a Country Called America, which will be published May 1 by Press 53.

Cherry's Twelve Women is a marvelous collection, beginning with its title and a wonderful Norman Mailer quote Cherry uses as epigraph: "This country is so complicated that when I start to think about it I begin talking in a Southern accent." The former hints at something of the rich range of protagonists and experiences Cherry is alert to and mines; the latter suggests Cherry's own firm grasp and understanding of the influence of place and how she makes it serve her again and again in these dozen tales.

Set in America's Deep South — you'll hear, among others, the accents of Civil War-era Richmond, Virginia; Bon Secour, Alabama; Tallahassee, Florida; Charleston, South Carolina; New Orleans, Louisiana — the stories in Twelve Women bring alive indelible portraits of wonderfully named women (Georgianna, Ramona, Philomena, Carolina, Sheba, Lorna Jo, Sassy, Calista, Lizbet), young and old, alone and not, sometimes down on their luck, often struggling to make ends meet, having affairs, bumping up against long-held stereotypes, and driven to define their ambitions and, most of all, themselves. As a collection, these stories, while unlinked, cohere beautifully, and yet Cherry manages to show each character as the complex individual she is. It's heartening to read fiction like Cherry's in which women are given such distinct and distinctive voices, have pronounced interior lives, and occupy so central a position in the making of their own narratives. 

Notably, Cherry makes an art of opening paragraphs that draw us in and keep us reading. Consider  just two excerpts:

She is seventeen, a freshwoman, as she calls herself. She is African-Italian-Cuban-Native American; the native part is Ojibway. She wears an earring in her eyebrow. ~ "Her Life to Come"

Georgianna Starlington had won Miss Fried Okra, Miss Yoknapatawpha County, Best Sandra Dee Lookalike, and Miss Delta Deltoids before she was out of her teens. She would never be Miss America, but she had been Miss American Pie. ~ "Famousness"

Cherry also is masterful in crafting sharp, unforgettable characterizations:

Lorna Jo had big hair, makeup you could skate on, and high heels. Her perfume was like an advance team: it tacked posters to pillars, beat the drums, got out memos, rallied the crowds. It let people know she was coming. ~ "Serious Love"

Henrietta was sixty-six; she had retired last year, a single woman in Richmond, Virginia, once the capital of  the Confederacy, staid and conservative, belated in so many ways, now a place where you could actually buy a drink. Or go to dinner with a black man. ~ "False Gods"

Cherry's stories, some of which ("Will Fitts Finds Out", "The Piano Lesson", "Famousness") first appeared in such prestigious periodicals as CommentaryThe Literary ReviewThe Kenyon Review, and The Idaho Review, are deftly paced and balanced. The author knows when to allow her characters to speak for themselves and when to propel their stories forward through use of an omniscient narrator. The dialogue, often witty, reads true-to-life, as do many of the situations in which Cherry places the women, especially in relationship to men. But Cherry also scores relief in humor, as in a wonderful description of a character's visit to Frederick's of Hollywood ("Famousness") or a son's introduction to his mother of a painter with whom she's having an affair ("Mother's Day"). And though Cherry may drop clues to meaning and action and outcome (one reason to pay attention to the stories' titles), she is game for surprises, sometimes rendering unexpected conclusions that send one back for a second reading, if only to better appreciate the skillfulness of the story-telling.

There are haunting stories in Twelve Women, too. One is "Au Secours" (keep the meaning of that title in mind), where the reader first meets "a woman named Jeanne[, who] is getting ready to cook dinner for herself and, she hopes, her husband. She wheels her chair to the refrigerator, removes a rubber-banded bunch of collard greens and a small brick of fatback, and then wheels to the counter, which is lower than most counters because the trailer's interior has been rebuilt to meet her needs." (Notice that Cherry doesn't define Jeanne as "disabled".) As "Au Secours" progresses and the reader learns Jeanne's compelling and sad backstory, Cherry introduces husband Lucas, as only Jeanne could have known and remembers him. Cherry takes the reader deeply into Jeanne's mind and physical and emotional states. The ending, which I will not give away, is tragic, in the way the best southern gothic tales can be—and altogether believable and understandable.

Another of Cherry's stories deserving mention is "The Piano Lesson", a dark and disturbing tale of a lonely widow and piano teacher, Mrs. Edith Womack, who gives her student Jessie a surprising, never-to-be-forgotten lesson on Thanksgiving Day. (The irony of setting the story on this particular holiday resonates.) As is the case in a number of stories in this collection, Cherry shows us women who bear not only deep emotional pain but who also must contend with wrecked bodies: ". . . Jesse caught herself gaping and shut her mouth. She had seen her mother get dressed for gala evenings but her mother did not look the way Mrs. Womack did. Her mother's chest was not crisscrossed with stark, savage lines that looked like somebody had carved a map into it. . . Edith's chest was not only flat and scarred, it was dented, like a fender. Like two fenders. . . ." The accumulation of such details produces a vivid portrait of Mrs. Womack that is horrifying though not necessarily unsympathetic; at the same time, that portrait is drawn with sufficient appreciation for Jessie's and the reader's intelligence that Cherry has no need to explain what has happened to Mrs. Womack or the value of the lesson Jessie will receive.

Put Cherry's Twelve Women in a Country Called America on your to-buy and must-read list, or pre-order now from the publisher to receive a signed copy. This is a collection that is worthy of and rewards multiple readings. 

* I received the advance copy from the publisher for purposes of review.

My other reviews of Kelly Cherry's work:

Other Posts:

Monday Muse Profile of Kelly Cherry Appointed Virginia's Poet Laureate (January 24, 2011)

Interview with Kelly Cherry at Writing Without Paper and TweetSpeak Poetry (May 16, 2012)

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